Apr 082015
 

Ever had the  idea that the more you have to remember, the more you’ll forget? And brain scans are showing that we do forget things – in order to remember what’s important.

Still looking into the brain – we have our own natural response to social rejection – the brain releases it’s own pain killing chemicals when we feel hurt by others?

And there’s evidence that how compassionate we are – how concerned we are by inequality for example – may be changed by prescription drugs we take?

And in terms of our physical health – it turns out that working up a sweat is good for us as we get older?

But when young people are fat perhaps they can blame their family of origin?

Meanwhile US scientists studying whether commercial diets work say there’s a surprising lack of evidence.

And finally in the same week that concerns were raised about direct current brain stimulation being used by Australian students there’s evidence that deep brain stimulation done by experts could help dementia symptoms.

 

Apr 082015
 

Weight LossIn a bid to help physicians guide obese and overweight patients who want to try a commercial weight-loss program, a team of Johns Hopkins researchers reviewed 4,200 studies for solid evidence of their effectiveness but concluded only a few dozen of the studies met the scientific gold standard of reliability.

In a review of the best research available through late 2014, the results suggest that only a few programs have shown that their users lose more weight than those not using them. The findings are published in the April 6 Annals of Internal Medicine, along with a call for more rigorous tests of the programs for longer periods of time so effectiveness can be better judged.

“Primary care doctors need to know what programs have rigorous trials showing that they work, but they haven’t had much evidence to rely on,” says Kimberly Gudzune, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of medicine and a weight-loss specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Our review should give clinicians a better idea of what programs they might consider for their patients.”

Among the findings, the investigators found that of 32 major commercial weight-loss programs marketed nationwide, only 11 have been rigorously studied in randomized controlled trials. And from these studies, they say they found only two programs are supported by gold-standard data showing that participants, on average, lost more weight after one year in these programs than people who were either dieting on their own, got printed health information, or received other forms of education and counseling sessions.

Moreover, they wrote that results in those programs were generally “modest,” with participants losing on average between 3 and 5 percent more than the studies’ control groups of nonprogram participants. Because of the way weight loss is generally tracked in research, the team did not gauge the average number of pounds lost in each program, Gudzune says.

“Clinicians could consider referring patients who are overweight or obese to Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. Other popular programs, such as NutriSystem, show promising weight-loss results, but additional studies evaluating long-term outcomes are needed,” according to the published report.

For the study, the researchers collected peer-reviewed research articles from two major research literature databases and the weight-loss programs themselves. To aid their search for reliable evidence, they focused their review on studies that ran for 12 weeks or longer, and on randomized controlled trials, which assigned participants either to a commercial program or a less intensive option offering educational handouts, counseling sessions or no assistance, depending on the study design.

Because the majority of weight-loss programs have never been studied in randomized clinical trials, the researchers say, they ended up with 39 trials covering 11 programs. Included were three high-intensity programs — Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and NutriSystem — which incorporate goal setting, self-monitoring, nutritional information and counseling.

Three very-low-calorie meal replacement programs — HMR, Medifast and OPTIFAST — were also included, along with five self-directed programs — Atkins, SlimFast, and the Internet-based Biggest Loser Club, eDiets and Lose It!

The researchers cautioned that not all the studies in any category were equally well designed. And since they found few studies that ran 12 months or longer, it was often unclear how many participants sustained their weight loss over the long term.

“We want people to experience the health benefits of weight loss — lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, and lower risk of developing diseases like diabetes,” says Jeanne Clark, M.D., M.P.H., the Frederick Brancati, M.D., M.H.S., Endowed Professor of Medicine, director of the Division of Internal Medicine and a study co-author. “Those benefits are long-term goals; losing weight for three months, then regaining it, has limited health benefits. That’s why it’s important to have studies that look at weight loss at 12 months and beyond.”

Based on their analysis of the studies, the researchers found Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers were backed by clinical trials that lasted 12 months or longer and showed program participants had a greater weight loss than nonparticipants. “Given these findings,” the authors write, “it may be reasonable for clinicians to refer patients to Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig.” NutriSystem also produced more weight loss at three months than counseling or education alone, but the authors were unable to find any long-term trials of that program. Participants in the very-low-calorie meal replacement programs lost more weight than nonparticipants in trials lasting from four to six months. But the authors found only one long-term study, which showed no benefit from such a program at 12 months. The authors noted that very-low-calorie programs also carry higher risks of complications, such as gallstones.

Programs based on the Atkins diet — high in fat, low in carbohydrates — also helped people lose more weight at six months and 12 months than counseling alone. The approach “appears promising,” the authors write.

No definite conclusions could be made about Slim-Fast and the Internet-based programs.

The researchers also tallied the costs of the commercial programs, which ranged from zero for Web-based weight-loss apps to between $570 and $682 per month for programs that require clients to buy replacement meals.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, and nearly two-thirds of adults say they have tried to lose weight. Weight-loss programs were a $2.5 billion-per-year business in 2014, and the industry is expected to grow. Federal matching funds provided by the Affordable Care Act make obesity screening and counseling available to people covered by federal health insurance exchanges and some Medicaid recipients. Some private insurers may phase in similar coverage. As a result, physicians across the country will be referring more patients to weight-loss services in coming years, the Johns Hopkins experts say.

Source: JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICINE

Apr 082015
 

Senior Workout - Hot and TiredPhysical activity that makes you puff and sweat is key to avoiding an early death, a large Australian study of middle-aged and older adults has found.

The researchers followed 204,542 people for more than six years, and compared those who engaged in only moderate activity (such as gentle swimming, social tennis, or household chores) with those who included at least some vigorous activity (such as jogging, aerobics or competitive tennis).

They found that the risk of mortality for those who included some vigorous activity was 9 to 13 per cent lower, compared with those who only undertook moderate activity.

“The benefits of vigorous activity applied to men and women of all ages, and were independent of the total amount of time spent being active,” said lead author Dr Klaus Gebel from James Cook University’s Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention.

“The results indicate that whether or not you are obese, and whether or not you have heart disease or diabetes, if you can manage some vigorous activity it could offer significant benefits for longevity.”

Co-author Dr Melody Ding from University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, said the results indicated that vigorous activities should be more strongly encouraged in clinical and public health guidelines.

The current advice from the World Health Organization – and health authorities in countries including the US, UK and Australia – is for adults to accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

“The guidelines leave individuals to choose their level of exercise intensity, or a combination of levels, with two minutes of moderate exercise considered the equivalent of one minute of vigorous activity,” Dr Ding said.

“It might not be the simple two-for-one swap that is the basis of the current guidelines,” she said.

“Our research indicates that encouraging vigorous activities may help to avoid preventable deaths at an earlier age.”

The study classified participants into three groups: those who reported that none of their physical activity was at a vigorous level, and those who reported that up to 30 per cent or more of their activity was at a vigorous level.

The mortality rate for those who reported up to 30 per cent vigorous activity, was 9 per cent lower than those who reported no vigorous activity. For those whose exercise routine was vigorous for more than 30 per cent of the time, the rate of mortality was reduced by 13 per cent.

So who should get huffing and puffing, and how much do you need to do?

“Our research indicates that even small amounts of vigorous activity could help reduce your risk of early death,” Dr Gebel said.

“For those with medical conditions, for older people in general, and for those who have never done any vigorous activity or exercise before, it’s always important to talk to a doctor first.

“Previous studies indicate that interval training, with short bursts of vigorous effort, is often manageable for older people, including those who are overweight or obese.”

The researchers investigated participants in the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up study, which has collected baseline data on more than 267,000 men and women aged 45 and older, in the Australian state of New South Wales.

Dr Klaus Gebel is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention at James Cook University in Cairns.

He commenced this study at the University of Sydney, and has completed it in collaboration with a team of University of Sydney researchers including Adrian Bauman, Sesquicentenary Professor of Public Health.

The paper, ‘Physical activity and all-cause mortality in middle-aged and older Australians’, is published online in the current edition of JAMA Internal Medicine.

Source: JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY

Apr 072015
 

This is a brain image showing in orange/red one area of the brain where the natural painkiller (opioid) system was highly active in research volunteers who are experiencing social rejection. This region, called the amygdala, was one of several where the U-M team recorded the first images of this system responding to social pain, not just physical pain. Studying this response, and the variation between people, could aid understanding of depression and anxiety. CREDIT University of Michigan

This is a brain image showing in orange/red one area of the brain where the natural painkiller (opioid) system was highly active in research volunteers who are experiencing social rejection. This region, called the amygdala, was one of several where the U-M team recorded the first images of this system responding to social pain, not just physical pain. Studying this response, and the variation between people, could aid understanding of depression and anxiety.
CREDIT
University of Michigan

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” goes the playground rhyme that’s supposed to help children endure taunts from classmates. But a new study suggests that there’s more going on inside our brains when someone snubs us – and that the brain may have its own way of easing social pain.

The findings, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry by a University of Michigan Medical School team, show that the brain’s natural painkiller system responds to social rejection – not just physical injury.

What’s more, people who score high on a personality trait called resilience – the ability to adjust to environmental change – had the highest amount of natural painkiller activation.

The team, based at U-M’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, used an innovative approach to make its findings. They combined advanced brain scanning that can track chemical release in the brain with a model of social rejection based on online dating. The work was funded by the U-M Depression Center, the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the Phil F Jenkins Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

They focused on the mu-opioid receptor system in the brain – the same system that the team has studied for years in relation to response to physical pain. Over more than a decade, U-M work has shown that when a person feels physical pain, their brains release chemicals called opioids into the space between neurons, dampening pain signals.

David T. Hsu, Ph.D., the lead author of the new paper, says the new research on social rejection grew out of recent studies by others, which suggests that the brain pathways that are activated during physical pain and social pain are similar.

“This is the first study to peer into the human brain to show that the opioid system is activated during social rejection,” says Hsu, a research assistant professor of psychiatry. “In general, opioids have been known to be released during social distress and isolation in animals, but where this occurs in the human brain has not been shown until now.”

The study involved 18 adults who were asked to view photos and fictitious personal profiles of hundreds of other adults. Each selected some who they might be most interested in romantically – a setup similar to online dating.

But then, when the participants were lying in a brain imaging machine called a PET scanner, they were informed that the individuals they found attractive and interesting were not interested in them.

Brain scans made during these moments showed opioid release, measured by looking at the availability of mu-opioid receptors on brain cells. The effect was largest in the brain regions called the ventral striatum, amygdala, midline thalamus, and periaqueductal gray – areas that are also known to be involved in physical pain.

The researchers had actually made sure the participants understood ahead of time that the “dating” profiles were not real, and neither was the “rejection.” But nonetheless, the simulated social rejection was enough to cause both an emotional and opioid response.

Suffering slings and arrows differently

Hsu notes that the underlying personality of the participants appeared to play a role in how much of a response their opioid systems made.

“Individuals who scored high for the resiliency trait on a personality questionnaire tended to be capable of more opioid release during social rejection, especially in the amygdala,” a region of the brain involved in emotional processing, Hsu says. “This suggests that opioid release in this structure during social rejection may be protective or adaptive.”

The more opioid release during social rejection in another brain area called the pregenual cingulate cortex, the less the participants reported being put in a bad mood by the news that they’d been snubbed.

The researchers also examined what happens when the participants were told that someone they’d expressed interest in had expressed interest in them – social acceptance. In this case, some brain regions also had more opioid release. “The opioid system is known to play a role in both reducing pain and promoting pleasure, and our study shows that it also does this in the social environment,” says Hsu.

The new research holds more importance than just pure discovery, note the authors, who also include senior author Jon-Kar Zubieta, M.D., Ph.D., a longtime opioid researcher. Specifically, they are pursuing further research on how those who are vulnerable to, or currently suffering from depression or social anxiety have an abnormal opioid response to social rejection and/or acceptance. “It is possible that those with depression or social anxiety are less capable of releasing opioids during times of social distress, and therefore do not recover as quickly or fully from a negative social experience. Similarly, these individuals may also have less opioid release during positive social interactions, and therefore may not gain as much from social support,” Hsu theorizes.

Hsu also notes that perhaps new opioid medications without addictive potential may be an effective treatment for depression and social anxiety. Although such medications are not yet available, he adds, “increasing evidence for the neural overlap of physical and social pain suggests a significant opportunity to bridge research in the treatment of chronic pain with the treatment of psychiatric disorders.”

If nothing else, perhaps knowing that our response to a social snub isn’t “all in our heads” can help some people understand their responses and cope better, Hsu says. “The knowledge that there are chemicals in our brains working to help us feel better after being rejected is comforting.”

Source: UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN HEALTH SYSTEM

Apr 072015
 

What if there were a pill that made you more compassionate and more likely to give spare change to someone less fortunate? UC Berkeley scientists have taken a big step in that direction.

A new study by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco researchers finds that giving a drug that changes the neurochemical balance in the prefrontal cortex of the brain causes a greater willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors, such as ensuring that resources are divided more equally.

The researchers also say that future research may lead to a better understanding of the interaction between altered dopamine-brain mechanisms and mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or addiction, and potentially light the way to possible diagnostic tools or treatments for these disorders.

“Our study shows how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insights into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions,” said Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator and assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

“Our hope is that medications targeting social function may someday be used to treat these disabling conditions,” said Andrew Kayser, a co-principal investigator on the study, an assistant professor of neurology at UC San Francisco and a researcher in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley.

In the study, published online today (March 19) in the journal Current Biology, participants on two separate visits received a pill containing either a placebo or tolcapone, a drug that prolongs the effects of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex. Participants then played a simple economic game in which they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient. After receiving tolcapone, participants divided the money with the strangers in a fairer, more egalitarian way than after receiving the placebo.

“We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one’s personality,” said Hsu. “Our study doesn’t reject this notion, but it does show how that trait can be systematically affected by targeting specific neurochemical pathways in the human brain.”

In this double-blind study of 35 participants, including 18 women, neither participants nor study staff members knew which pills contained the placebo or tolcapone, an FDA-approved drug used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder affecting movement and muscle control.

Computational modeling showed Hsu and his colleagues that under tolcapone’s influence, game players were more sensitive to and less tolerant of social inequity, the perceived relative economic gap between a study participant and a stranger.

By connecting to previous studies showing that economic inequity is evaluated in the prefrontal cortex, a core area of the brain that dopamine affects, this study brings researchers closer to pinpointing how prosocial behaviors such as fairness are initiated in the brain.

“We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry,” said the study’s first author, Ignacio Sáez, a postdoctoral researcher at the Haas School of Business. “Studies in the past decade have shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations. What we show here is one brain ‘switch’ we can affect.”

Source: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA – BERKELEY

Apr 072015
 

Don't forget!A new study from the University of Birmingham and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences unit in Cambridge has shown how intentional recall is beyond a simple reawakening of a memory; and actually leads us to forget other competing experiences that interfere with retrieval. Quite simply, the very act of remembering may be one of the major reasons why we forget.

The research, published today in Nature Neuroscience, is the first to isolate the adaptive forgetting mechanism in the human brain. The brain imaging study shows that the mechanism itself is implemented by the suppression of the unique cortical patterns that underlie competing memories. Via this mechanism, remembering dynamically alters which aspects of our past remain accessible.

Dr Maria Wimber, from the University of Birmingham, explained, “Though there has been an emerging belief within the academic field that the brain has this inhibitory mechanism, I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that recalling memories has this darker side of making us forget others by actually suppressing them.”

Patterns of brain activity in the participants were monitored by MRI scans while they were asked to recall individual memories based on images they had been shown earlier.

The team, co-led by Dr Michael Anderson from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit Cambridge, were able to track the brain activity induced by individual memories and show how this supressed others by dividing the brain into tiny 3-dimensional voxels.

Based on the fine-grained activation patterns of these voxels, the researchers were able to witness the neural fate of individual memories as they were reactivated initially, and subsequently suppressed.

Over the course of four selective retrievals the participants in the study were cued to retrieve a target memory, which became more vivid with each trial. Competing memories were less well reactivated as each trial was carried out, and indeed were pushed below baseline expectations for memory, supporting the idea that an active suppression of memory was taking place.

Dr. Anderson said “People are used to thinking of forgetting as something passive. Our research reveals that people are more engaged than they realise in shaping what they remember of their lives. The idea that the very act of remembering can cause forgetting is surprising, and could tell us more about selective memory and even self deception.”

Dr Wimber continued, “Forgetting is often viewed as a negative thing, but of course, it can be incredibly useful when trying to overcome a negative memory from our past. So there are opportunities for this to be applied in areas to really help people.”

The team note that being able to decode how the brain goes about suppressing competing information needs to be acknowledged in a number of situations; not least in the judicial process.

Dr Wimber said, “It has significance for anything that relies on memory, but a really good example is that of eyewitness testimonies. When a witness is asked to recall specific information about an event, and they are quizzed time and time again, it could well be to the detriment of associated memories – giving the impression that their memory is sketchy. In fact, the repeated recall is causing them to forget these details.”

The findings of this research are not restricted to specific memory types. Semantic memory, episodic memory and even recently acquired short-term memories are impacted by the forgetful side effect of frequent recall.

Though people differ genetically, it is believed that all brains are capable of inducing varying degrees of this forgetting mechanism.

Studying the neural basis of forgetting has proven challenging in the past because the ‘engram’, that is, the unique neural fingerprint that an experience leaves in our memory, has been difficult to pinpoint in brain activity. By capitalising on the relationship between perception and memory, the study detected neural activity caused by the activation of individual memories, giving a unique window into the invisible neurocognitive processes triggered when a reminder recapitulates several competing memories.

Source: UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM

Apr 072015
 

NarcissismContrary to popular belief, excessive use of first-person singular pronouns such as “I” and “me” does not necessarily indicate a narcissistic tendency, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“There is a widely assumed association between use of first-person singular pronouns, what we call I-talk, and narcissism, among laypeople and scientists despite the fact that the empirical support for this relation is surprisingly sparse and generally inconsistent,” said Angela Carey, MA, a third-year doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study. It was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Narcissists have an unrealistic sense of superiority and self-importance and an overabundance of self-focus, said Matthias Mehl, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the study. It would therefore be reasonable to assume that narcissists would be more prone to I-talk, he said.

Early testing of this hypothesis was conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988 and confirmed the association, but consisted of merely 48 participants. Since then, scientific studies have been unable to consistently replicate the finding. Because it appears to be such a pervasive belief in modern society, the researchers felt it was important to give the hypothesis a rigorous scientific vetting.

Carey and Mehl teamed with researchers from four other universities in the United States and two in Germany to recruit over 4,800 people for the study (67 percent female, mostly undergraduate students). Participants were asked to engage in one of six communications tasks in which they wrote or talked about themselves or an unrelated topic. Researchers also scored the participants for narcissism using five different narcissism measures, including the common 40-item Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Their narcissism scores were then compared with their use of first-person singular pronouns in the communication tasks.

The researchers could find no association between pronoun use and narcissism. When they analyzed data by gender, they found men had a slightly higher correlation than women but neither was statistically significant nor practically meaningful.

“The most interesting finding is that the results did not vary much across two different countries, multiple labs, five different narcissism measures and 12 different samples,” said Mehl. “We were surprised by how consistent of a near-null finding it was.”

Identifying narcissists is important because over time their grandiosity, self-focus and self-importance can become socially toxic and can have negative consequences on relationships, said Carey.

“The next question, of course, is how else, if not through I-talk, narcissism is revealed through language,” she added. “We are working on this question in a follow-up study using the same data.”

Source: AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION

 

Apr 072015
 

Scott Grafton stands in front of the fMRI machine in UCSB's Brain Imaging Center. CREDIT: Spencer Bruttig

Scott Grafton stands in front of the fMRI machine in UCSB’s Brain Imaging Center.
CREDIT: Spencer Bruttig

Why are some people able to master a new skill quickly while others require extra time or practice? That was the question posed by UC Santa Barbara’s Scott Grafton and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University.

To find the answer, the team designed a study that measured the connections between different brain regions while participants learned to play a simple game.

The researchers discovered that the neural activity in the quickest learners was different from that of the slowest. Their analysis provides new insight into what happens in the brain during the learning process and sheds light on the role of interactions between different regions. The findings, which appear online today in Nature Neuroscience, suggest that recruiting unnecessary parts of the brain for a given task — similar to overthinking the problem — plays a critical role in this important difference.

“It’s useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit,” said Grafton, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. “When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning.”

At UCSB’s Brain Imaging Center, study participants played a simple game while their brains were scanned with fMRI. The technique measures neural activity by tracking the flow of blood in the brain, highlighting which regions are involved in a given task.

Participants responded to a sequence of color-coded notes by pressing the corresponding button on a hand-held controller. Six predetermined sequences of 10 notes each were shown multiple times during the scanning sessions. Subjects were instructed to play the sequences as quickly and as accurately as possible, responding to the cues they saw on a screen.

The study continued with participants practicing at home while researchers monitored their activity remotely. Subjects returned to the Brain Imaging Center at two-, four- and six-week intervals for new scans that demonstrated how well practice had helped them master the skill. Completion time for all participants dropped over the course of the study but did so at different rates. Some picked up the sequences immediately, while others gradually improved over the six-week period.

The complexities of learning

Lead author Danielle Bassett, an expert in network science, developed novel analysis methods to determine what was happening in the participants’ brains that correlated with these differences. But rather than trying to find a single spot in the brain that was more or less active, the team investigated the learning process as the function of a complex, dynamic network involving various regions of the brain.

“We weren’t using the traditional fMRI approach where you pick a region of interest and see if it lights up,” said Bassett, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. “We looked at the whole brain at once and saw which parts were communicating with each other the most.”

The investigators compared the activation patterns of 112 anatomical regions of the brain and measured the degree to which they mirrored one another. The more the patterns of two regions matched, the more they were considered to be in communication. By graphing those connections, the team found that hotspots of highly interconnected regions emerged.

“When network scientists look at these graphs, they see what is known as community structure,” Bassett said. “There are sets of nodes in a network that are really densely interconnected to each other. Everything else is either independent or very loosely connected with only a few lines.”

The team used a technique known as dynamic community detection, a method that employs algorithms to determine which nodes are incorporated into these clusters and how their interactions change over time. This allowed the researchers to measure how common it was for any two nodes to remain in the same cluster while subjects practiced the same sequence some 10 times. Through these comparisons, they found overarching trends about how regions responsible for different functions worked together.

The researchers discovered that the visual and the motor blocks had a lot of connectivity during the first few trials, but as the experiment progressed they became essentially autonomous. For example, the part of the brain that controls finger movement and the part that processes visual stimulus didn’t really interact at all by the end of the experiment.

According to Grafton, in some ways this trend was not surprising since the team was essentially seeing the learning process on the neurological level, with the participants’ brains reorganizing the flow of activity as they mastered this new skill.

“Previous brain imaging research has mostly looked at skill learning over — at most — a few days of practice, which is silly,” said Grafton, who is also a member of UCSB’s Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies. “Who ever learned to play the violin in an afternoon? By studying the effects of dedicated practice over many weeks, we gain insight into never before observed changes in the brain. These reveal fundamental insights into skill learning that are akin to the kinds of learning we must achieve in the real world.”

Comparing executive function

With the neurological correlates of the learning process coming into focus, the scientists were able to delve into the differences among participants in order to explain why some learned the sequences faster than others. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the participants who showed decreased neural activity learned the fastest. The critical distinction was in areas not directly related to seeing the cues or playing the notes: the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

These cognitive control centers are thought to be most responsible for what is known as executive function. “This neurological trait is associated with making and following through with plans, spotting and avoiding errors and other higher-order types of thinking,” Grafton said. “In fact, good executive function is necessary for complex tasks but might actually be a hindrance to mastering simple ones.”

Grafton also noted that the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are among the last brain regions to fully develop in humans, which may help explain why children are able to acquire new skills quickly as compared to adults.

“It’s the people who can turn off the communication to these parts of their brain the quickest who have the steepest drop-off in their completion times,” said Bassett. “It seems like those other parts are getting in the way for the slower learners. It’s almost like they’re trying too hard and overthinking it.”

Additional studies will delve into why some people are better than others at shutting down the connections in these parts of the brains.

Source: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA – SANTA BARBARA

Apr 072015
 

89489_web

University of Vermont psychology professor Tim Stickle co-authored a paper showing that some pre-psychopathic youth, who appear cold and callous, actually experience unmanageable, but treatable, emotional distress. CREDIT Sally McCay

Movie villains from Norman Bates to Hannibal Lecter have popularized the notion of the psychopath as cold, cruel, lacking in empathy and beyond the reach of treatment.

A new study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that this monolithic view, shared by some treatment professionals, is not only wrong but prevents many diagnosed with psychopathy, or precursors of it, from receiving therapies that could help them live happier, more productive lives.

The study focused on 150 male and female youth housed in juvenile detention centers, aged 11 to 17, who were classified as callous and unemotional, or CU, exhibiting severe anti-social behaviors that put them at risk of developing psychopathic traits as adults.

While some in the research sample did fit the classic definition of psychopathy, a significant subgroup did not, said Tim Stickle, professor of Psychology at the University of Vermont, who co-authored the paper with Andrew Gill, a graduate student at the university.

“They appear callous and unemotional to others but are actually very distressed, have high levels of anxiety, higher levels of depression, higher levels of emotion,” he said. “We think of these harmful, antisocial, aggressive kids as being immune to fear, immune to negative feelings, but in fact we’re showing a whole group of them are not only not immune, but are very susceptible.”

The hopeful implication, said Stickle, is that this set of psychological issues is treatable with approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy that teach strategies for managing emotions.

Conventional treatments for aggression and psychopathy emphasize rewards and punishments to change unwanted behaviors.

“There is an opportunity to do things differently and more effectively,” Stickle said.

Savings of $3 million over lifetime

Effectively treating youth at risk of developing psychopathy as adults has value on a societal as well as an individual level.

“Untreated callous unemotional traits put these youth at risk for becoming lifelong criminals,” Stickle said.

Preventing one high risk youth from developing lifelong antisocial behavior will save approximately $3 million across the youth’s lifetime, according to a study conducted in 2007.

Other recent studies have confirmed that this emotionally distressed subgroup also exists among adults with psychopathic traits.

Key advance: a comprehensive diagnostic test that reveals differences

The study’s ability to identify subgroups within the CU research sample was made possible by the psychological testing instruments the researchers used, which gathered information from subjects on a wide variety of personality and emotional traits.

Psychopathy is usually identified with a far narrower checklist of traits and behaviors.

“It’s not just one characteristic that allows clear identification of who falls in which group; it takes a wide range of traits,” Stickle said.

The multidimensional testing tools the study employed should be widely adopted in the future, said Stickle, to ensure that those in the secondary psychopathy subgroup receive the appropriate therapy.

“Using a wide range of measures of emotional experience and expression is very important to clearly identify who these individuals are so they can be helped,” he said.

Girls more vulnerable

The study is first to find that CU girls are especially likely to fall within the group that suffers from significant emotional distress and unregulated negative feeling.

“These traits are particularly prevalent in adolescent females in the juvenile justice system,” Stickle said.

The study also breaks ground in showing that callous and unemotional youth are at risk of developing clinically significant levels of depression.

Source: UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT

Apr 072015
 

New mother with baby and husband in hospital smilingNew mothers in the Philippines spend more time in the bedroom with their partner in the first few weeks after giving birth than they did before they became pregnant. This might be a type of survival strategy to keep the relationships with the fathers of their new babies alive and well, to ensure continued support for their offspring. So says Michelle Escasa-Dorne of the University of Colorado in the US, after studying how women from a society with a low divorce rate such as the Philippines adapt to being both mothers and lovers. The study appears in Springer’s journal Human Nature.

A range of studies previously conducted on how women in Western societies experience the first six weeks after giving birth show that they tend to devote more time to their offspring’s well-being than to their partner. This leads to lower relationship satisfaction and less intercourse between partners, and a clear shift from so-called mating efforts to parenting efforts. Escasa-Dorne set out to understand if similar trends are also found among women in a non-Western population with a low divorce rate.

She questioned 260 women who were in a relationship and living in the Philippines’ capital of Manila. Of these, 155 women still breastfed. They completed questionnaires about their sexual functioning and menstrual cycles, as well as about how satisfied and committed they were in their current relationships. The women were between 18 and 35 years old, mostly married, well-educated, and had on average two or three children.

Breastfeeding women who had already resumed having their periods were more sexually active and committed than others. This suggests that women in Manila experience an increase in sexual activity after the birth of their children that may even be higher than pre-pregnancy levels. According to Escasa-Dorne this is consistent with a strategy in which women continue to invest in their current committed relationships. The postpartum sexual increase may be a means of continuing investment in a satisfactory, successful relationship in which future children can be successfully reared. For a mother in a stressful relationship – perhaps reflecting an unsatisfactory romantic relationship with her partner, or lack of support otherwise – resuming a sexual relationship may not be a priority as she focuses on her infant.

“Even though a breastfeeding woman may not be sexually proactive, she may respond favorably when her partner initiates sexual activity. Maintaining the relationship may be important if one’s current partner is beneficial to the partnership and to the tasks of parenting,” said Escasa-Dorne, summarizing this relationship maintenance strategy.

Escasa-Dorne does wonder whether cultural norms did not influence some of the participants’ responses to questions about their sexual relations and relationships. She notes that childless women may be more hesitant to note their openness or enjoyment of sexual intimacy than those who have given birth. In the Philippines, many couples continue to live with their parents or in-laws after being married, especially if they have not yet had children.

Source: SPRINGER SCIENCE+BUSINESS MEDIA

  • RSSRSS
  • Social Slider
  • RSS